It’s pretty common for games these days to include things like photo modes, to capture the beauty of the art so many developers worked so hard on. Even though we all now have easy access to the ability to grab screen captures, that’s usually not quite the same thing as having a photo mode that allows you to move the camera, apply effects, and create your own little masterpiece.
These photo modes became particularly popular around this console generation since the PS4 and Xbox One have dedicated storage locations for captured photos and clips.
But that’s not to say games in the past didn’t do the same thing. Call of Duty allowed for this very thing starting with Black Ops 1, using its theater mode. Before that, Halo allowed players to do the same thing, helping to usher in a new, more social age of gaming. Suddenly you could easily show others what your experience with a game was like.
Gran Turismo 4 Set The Pace
However, the first game on consoles that I remember including a photo mode and trying to integrate it into the core experience, was Gran Turismo 4. When I first saw screenshots of GT4 in a magazine, I was absolutely blown away by the realism and artistry on display. Where other developers would usually either use screenshots of the game in its natural state from the view of the gameplay camera or instead show screenshots of cutscenes to get something more dynamic, GT -unknown to most of us at the time- was showing off dynamic screenshots that were actually possible to recreate in-game yourself. They looked like professional photographs created using some sort of external tool, but it’s honestly quite possible that they were using the very photography tools that were included in the game for its players to use.
The game not only offered the ability to go back through replays and find the perfect angle, on the perfect track, in the perfect moment, with the perfect camera settings, and then save that memory forever, but it also offered locations set up specifically to create beautiful photos away from the track. Players could then save these photos to their memory card, transfer them to a flash drive and share them with anyone.
Fast forward to GT5, and this functionality was still present. Though this time they had better tools and significantly better graphics on display. Once again, it felt like you could craft a little bit of reality from this virtual toybox. To car enthusiasts who loved motor vehicles for their artistic beauty, there was really nothing better. GT6 carried this legacy on, and once again gave you new locations to use, new cars to capture and optimized tools.
Gran Turismo Sport, however, decided to take things in a different direction…
Gran Turismo Sport Takes the Lead
When I first learned about GT Sport’s ‘Scapes’ mode, I was skeptical. I had been used to being able to freely move the camera, to get any picture I dreamed of. And while you could still do this on track, the dedicated photo locations were now something different. They were now all real pictures of real locations. The player suddenly had very little control over the environment itself.
As soon as I laid my hands on the controller though, all of my concerns faded away. There were hundreds and hundreds of backdrops… backdrops that would’ve been impossible to recreate faithfully from digital assets in any feasible amount of time. It was an all-out assault of colors, shapes, seasons, environments… I could now take my favorite cars and place them pretty much anywhere I could imagine; maybe even places where it would be impossible to get a real car.
But… how does that work? How do you take a digital vehicle, and believably place it within a two-dimensional photo? Well, it’s a lot more complicated than a lot of people might initially think.
The Work In The Pits
To start with what’s probably the most obvious hurdle to overcome, in order to get a digital object to sit properly on a two-dimensional image, so that it looks convincingly like it’s sitting in the image, a 3D mesh needs to be created to simulate the actual dimensions and space present in the photograph. You can kind of think of this like how Final Fantasy VII has invisible collision for its pre-rendered backgrounds so that it seems like Cloud is really standing in the environment. He won’t be walking on walls, and if he goes behind an object, part of his model will be occluded by it. This is done by separating the overall image into individual layers that can sit in front of or behind the character models depending on the layer order.
But here in Scapes, this information is much more complicated, and likely more closely resembles the recreation of spatial information used to properly and realistically add CG and other effects to movie scenes. It’s likely even more complicated in a lot of cases actually since Scapes needs to accommodate for player choice. If they want to allow players to place their care on a curve in the environment, the information for that curve has to be added, otherwise, the car will look like it’s sitting on top of the picture, and the illusion shatters.
This mesh is the basis for a lot of the other features present here as well. For example, it also allows them to scale the cars properly, so that they’re always the right size in relation to their distance from the camera. Furthermore, the developers can use this spacial information to properly simulate how things like the headlights of the vehicle will interact with the environment. That way, the light seems to actually hit and bounce off of surfaces, rather than just fazing through the ground or shooting off into the distance.
Lighting The Way
But it goes much deeper than this. To be as realistic and precise as possible, the developers captured the real lighting data of each environment and recreated both it and the proper material data for each surface of a picture, in-game. This means they can do all sorts of things with it, like create a rough reflection of the car in a shiny textured floor, or add a pristine reflection in a clean windowpane or a puddle. They can create specular reflections on shiny surfaces when your headlights hit them, like racing curbs. They can even create accurate reflections of the environment and map them to the car, complete with proper lighting data so that it’ll interact with the paint and materials of the vehicle realistically.
The lighting data for each scene was captured in HDR, so it’s extremely accurate to the actual moment that photo was taken, and realistically adjusts to your camera settings when you change things like the exposure. This same information is also used in the game’s lighting, which is why GT Sport’s HDR implementation is considered so impressive. But more so, that means you can get similarly accurate lighting information when using the photo mode in race replays, where the environments are entirely digital. According to an interview with the series director, Kazunori Yamauchi done by GTPlanet, the Scapes team was responsible for writing the software for Sony’s Alpha cameras. They opted to do this specifically so that they could experiment and see how far they could take Scapes as a concept.
Scapes mode even uses extremely high-quality versions of the vehicle models when compared to the models used in races. That way you can zoom in extremely close to specific sections of a vehicle, and it won’t break down into a blob of polygon edges and rough textures. The same is true of the Scapes photos themselves since they were all captured at insanely high resolutions. After all, there’s no point in digitally zooming in, if it leads to the picture becoming pixelated. It’s really no wonder that they offered most of the Scapes environments available at launch as a separate, free DLC for people who were interested in the feature. The DLC itself is around 9gb, most likely because the pictures are so large.
Putting The Tools In The Players Hands
On the other side of things, the tools players can use themselves in Scapes are a mix between realistic camera settings, and nuanced photo editing options, so that you have a suite of tools that really allow you to fiddle with the granular details of an image until it’s perfect. You can create realistic motion blur to add movement or simulate depth of field. You can add brash effects like sepia tones or noise, or create your own effects from scratch. But it’s not all about the big picture since you can make extremely minor adjustments to things like exposure or color cast. Players can place cars where they want, add multiple cars, add drivers and put them in different poses, turn on different lights from headlights to high beams, to hazards or brake lights. You can turn the wheels, which will also cause the car to realistically lean. The options are numerous and precise.
These tools also allow you to create photos that are technically impossible without heavy manipulation in a photo editor since things like motion are technically simulated depending on your settings.
Nearly two years out from the release of the game, there are now well over 1000 backdrops to choose from, and more are added fairly regularly. You have everything you can imagine, from places all over the world. Parking garages, car manufacturer headquarters, and museums, famous landmarks, iconic locations like the Shibuya crosswalk, cliffsides, docks, seemingly random alleys, quaint and out of the way fields, or particularly photogenic corners on backroads. Some of them are themed around holidays, with simulated, moving lights. Others take place in autumn, or spring giving different weather and color profiles. Almost anything you could imagine is here, ready for your artistic touch.
Why go through so much effort just to take pictures of cars though? Who cares that much about looking at photos of hunks of metal designed to take us down the road?
Honestly, there’s no one answer to this. Some people love it for the technical accomplishments and artistry it represents. So many skilled professions need to be involved to make a mode like this possible. The mode is pointless if they don’t get good pictures from it, so you need a sense of photography. But even if you get good pictures, that doesn’t matter if they aren’t properly built to accommodate the vehicles well. And accommodating the vehicles requires expert knowledge of how to translate real physical phenomena into a digital medium, from physical space and gravity to lighting, and even time. This type of work can be awe-inspiring. Not to mention they need to be able to translate the complexities of photography for people who don’t know what they’re doing, so they too can still utilize the mode to take good pictures.
Other people like it purely because they see cars as art themselves. Creating a consumer product that balances functionality, safety, and also still pushes certain ideas to the extreme -like speed, or comfort, or even just-style is not an easy task by any means. So it’s understandable that a lot of people want to celebrate this, and revel in the beauty of the craftsmanship.
Some people like it because they too are artists, who want to express themselves through the medium they’ve been given. It’s both an exhilarating challenge, and a fantastic outlet to be able to import your own art, delicately position it on your vehicle of choice, and then spend hours digitally recreating the perfect moment in time for it to be placed in, with all of these disparate parts coming together to form a greater artistic whole.
And that’s really what it comes down to. Scapes isn’t just about pretty pictures, or cars, or technology. It’s about sharing your desires, your experiences, and a bit of yourself with others. It’s just as much about expressing yourself as an individual, as it is about being part of a larger community of enthusiasts whose passions overlap to create something wonderful. Scapes is about the love of art, and a world that can provide the tools that allow us to create it.
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